07 August 2012

Fauna of Spirit Lake, Iowa Circa 1882

The following is from an article written by A.A. Mosher. It was much longer than presented, so only the paragraph on birds is given. Details convey a time when there was such a wonderful variety of many species in a relatively unsettled land. The specifics given are sparse, but overall, it is a very important record for the locale and the historic ornithology for Iowa.

"Of birds we have a very large variety, especially aquatic fowl — swans, Canada geese, pelicans, cranes, herons, ducks, such as mallard, widgeon, teal, pintail, spoonbill, and wood-duck, which all nest here. Then we have as flight birds the sawbill, canvas-back, red-head, bluebill and bronze duck, and many other different kinds; with occasionally a snow goose, and lots of cormorants and loons (great American divers). The great white crane, and its congenor, the sandhill cranes, both nest here, as well as the loon, cormorant, swan and Canada goose. There are prairie chickens without numbering, a few quail, and waders of all sorts, from the yellow-leg down to the peetweet. We have the great blue heron, the plumed or knight heron, the green-legged heron and a smaller variety — the ibis etc.; mud-hens and divers in great quantities; bald eagles, hawks, owls are in plenty, and in winter the great snowy owl. Of the smaller varieties of birds we have nearly all that you have in the East, and some that you do not, notably the yellow-headed blackbird. During the fall we have in considerable numbers the jack snipe, the curlew of several kinds, the sickle-bill and the sora, some seasons in considerable numbers. This comprises in the main the various varieties of game in this section, and of these most are in goodly numbers."

This exquisite account is worthy of further consideration, as is any source document which conveys details for about 35 species in 1882 in the Midwest.

The following is a liberal interpretation of Mr. Mosher's spectacular notations. Thankfully he took the time to submit his perspective for publication so the details are now an important among the chronicles of historic ornithology.

  • American Bittern: have the green-legged heron; this bittern would be expected to be extant in the area, and as it has green legs, and because of its bill and behavior could easily be called a heron; the designation would certainly be more expected than an id of Little Blue Heron which a modern field guide indicates as having green legs, and which has occurred in northern Iowa; there is no historic field guide available to check the particulars
  • American Coot: have mud-hens; an obvious reference to an ubiquitous species
  • American White Pelican: pelicans; among large variety of birds
  • American Wigeon: ducks, such as widgeon; nest here
  • Bald Eagle: bald eagles are in plenty
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron: have the plumed of knight heron
  • Blue-winged Teal: ducks, such as teal; nest here
  • Canada Goose: Canada geese; among large variety of birds; nest here
  • Canvasback: flight birds; canvas-back
  • Common Loon: lots of loons (great American divers); nest here
  • Common Merganser: flight birds; sawbill
  • Double-crested Cormorant: lots of cormorants; nest here
  • Duck: flight birds; bronze duck; there are no clues helpful in determining a specific identity for this species. based upon a search of more than 130,000 records from 1885 and prior times; this could have been the Ruddy Duck, based upon its prominent ruddy coloration; there are no matching records within the known historic accounts which indicate any reference to a particular species
  • Duck: flight birds; many kinds of ducks
  • Godwit: in autumn have curlew of several kinds; differentiated from the obvious curlew, therefore associated with migrant shorebirds with long beaks
  • Great Blue Heron: herons; among large variety of birds
  • Greater Prairie-Chicken: prairie chickens without numbering

It would have been a grand time on the northern prairies of Iowa, when the prairie-chickens would have been so prominent upon the landscape, and probably appreciated nearly every day — for a time — by homestead pioneers. This account is an obvious indication of that sort of situation.

  • Grebe: divers in great quantities; obviously not loons nor ducks, as they were mentioned elsewhere; different sorts of grebes — notable for their diving behaviors — would have undoubtedly been present on and in the lake waters
  • Hawk: hawks are in plenty; during this era of history, hawks reported in a general manner were rarely, if ever denoted in a manner sufficient to determine any sort of accurate identification; certainly the Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, and during the winter months, the Rough-legged Hawk, though a lack of attention to specific details by the author prevents any indication of actual species identification.
  • Ibis: have ibis; whether white-faced or glossy is unknown
  • Least Bittern: heron variety smaller than the green-legged heron; this species is smaller than its congener the American Bittern, so it follows that it the larger bird was one species, the smaller variety is this species
  • Lesser Scaup: flight birds; bluebill
  • Long-billed Curlew: in autumn have the sickle-bill; sickle bill was a prominent name used to designate this species
  • Mallard: ducks, such as mallard; nest here
  • Northern Bobwhite: a few quail
  • Northern Pintail: ducks, such as pintail; nest here
  • Northern Shoveler: ducks, such as spoonbill; nest here
  • Owl: owls are in plenty; undoubtedly the Great Horned Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl, though the lack of particulars prevents any specific notation being indicated in the historic record
  • Redhead: flight birds; red-head
  • Sandhill Crane: sandhill cranes nest here
  • Shorebird: waders of all sorts
  • Snow Goose: occasionally a snow goose
  • Snowy Owl: in winter the great snowy owl
  • Sora: in autumn have the sora, some seasons in considerable numbers
  • Spotted Sandpiper: waders including the peetweet; there are numerous references to the peetweet by ornithological authorities of the historic era that associate this name with this species; obviously the Killdeer also occurred and there may have been other migrant plovers, but the published account does not provide any further details that would be helpful in determining any further particulars
  • Trumpeter Swan: swans; among large variety of birds; nest here
  • Whooping Crane: great white crane nest here; these few words were associated with notes for the sandhill crane, so the specifics are profound in their indication of nesting Whooping Cranes in the continental United States
  • Wilson's Snipe: in autumn have the jack-snipe; this might have also been other species of shorebirds, but snipe were typically recognized and referred to in a particular manner to conform with a particular identity given, especially since there are other comments about shorebirds bu the author
  • Wood Duck: ducks, such as wood-duck; nest here
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird: notably the yellow-headed blackbird; there was no indication of its nesting, though that undoubtedly occurred as this species was extant during the breeding season in this region
  • Yellowlegs: waders including the yellowleg; probably both the lesser and greater at one time or another

Spirit Lake is in Dickinson county, Iowa.

March 9, 1882. Spirit Lake Beacon 12(15): 1. First issued in Forest and Stream. Mr. Mosher was affiliated with the state game agency.